Friday, 17 May 2019

Some questions to get conservatives thinking

 I've repeatedly warned conservatives that, if defining who is or isn't a conservative and what is or isn't conservatism is left to socialists, liberals and reactionaries, we will become irrelevant to politics and policy-making. Historian Robert Saunders, in criticising Roger Scruton's call for defunding of university departments lacking in intellectual diversity, set this out in a Twitter thread:
In its early years, Thatcherism teemed with ideas. The party became a magnet for historians, philosophers and economists - some converts from the radical Left - who hammered out their ideas in think tanks, discussion groups and Scruton's own journal, The Salisbury Review
Saunders asks whether the current reaction from conservatives to left-wing dominance of academia - ban it, stop it, take its money away - simply covers over the paucity of conservative thinking, especially in or near to the Conservative Party itself. Saunders isn't a conservative so my warning is relevant but his (admitted a tad jaundiced) analysis of David Cameron is very telling:
From this perspective, Cameron seems guilty not of ‘scepticism’ but of what his biographers call a ‘heroic incuriosity’. He takes no interest in the arts; has only the haziest grasp of history; and cheerfully admits that he ‘doesn’t really read novels’. Far from liberating himself from ‘ideology’, he has simply ceased to ask meaningful questions of it.
This is, without question, the defining characteristic of many modern politicians - Cameron is not unique in being spectacularly bright but incredibly shallow, just look at Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Leo Varadkar and, of course, the godfather of 'image is everything' political positioning, Tony Blair.

A while ago - when slightly angry voices on the right of politics were saying that Cameron was a 'conservative in name only' or similar, I wrote that this was far from the truth, he is absolutely a conservative:
But for Cameron – and we see this in his enthusiasm for “social action” – such an obligation to act nobly is essential to conservatism. We are defined by what we do rather than what we support. Passing laws to help the poor in Africa or to care for communities in England is not sufficient; we must act ourselves to help society. A central tenet of Cameron’s conservatism is the idea of “giving back” – we are fortunate so it behoves us to put some of that fortune back into society.

The second concept is the idea of administration. Some people see the purpose of securing political power as the way to effect change, to direct the forces of government so as to improve mankind. In Cameron’s conservatism this is not the case; the purpose of power is administration – the running of good government.
The problem is that this outlook - action and managerialism - doesn't leave a great deal of space for thought and rather focuses our preference on doers rather than thinkers - Rory Stewart rather than Jesse Norman. As Blair once put it "what matters is what works" and, in most cases, "what works" is defined as what wins us elections rather than a genuinely technocratic evidence-based polity. Our modern government looks technocratic but is far more concerned with what might be called "feels" than with substantive thinking about policy.

An illustration of this came from Will Tanner (who runs the brand new Tory think tank, Onward) in response to Liz Truss MP's suggestion that we need to reform planning and build a million new homes on what is now 'green belt' around London:

You've got to admire @trussliz' chutzpah, but our 10,000 sample megapoll last month suggested allowing development on the Green Belt would be the most unpopular housing pledge the Conservatives could take into an election, even with young people
Truss responds with a very telling comment:

We've got to move away from focus-group paralysis and deliver what will improve people's opportunities and life chances. We have to start making arguments again and not just follow.
Tanner's comment is in line with the Conservative Party of Cameron - no thinking ("how do we craft a planning system that protects, enhances even, the beauty, heritage and environment of England while allowing the housing development we need") just 'we can't do that, it isn't popular'. You don't have to agree with Truss's argument about housing development to see that setting policy by opinion poll denies the requirement to think seriously about the sort of places we want in our society. It is also a little ironic to see a politician slapping down a think-tank chief for not doing any actual thinking.

As to that conservative thinking, it is out there but not quite where you'd expect to find it. Firstly, the sort of issues that really bother people are now far less about economics than they are about sociology:
As conservatives, however, we can take advantage of not being tied to a canon to dip into a wider range of sources, to use fiction - Austen, Trollope, Tolkien and even Disraeli - as well as philosophy. Above all though, conservatives should pay more attention to sociology than economics. Most of our problems are because we haven't done this, we've allowed ourselves to be captured by the dry logic of what Deidre McCloskey calls "Max U" - maximising utility, utilitarianism, metrics, technocracy, Plato's Philosopher Kings.
So if you want to get some substance about family, community, identity and the loss of institutions, you're better off reading US sociologist Robert Putnam's "Our Kids" or Dutch geographer Harm de Blij's "The Power of Place" than dabbing your eyes at reactionary paeans to a lost bucolic England or thudding your way through "The Road to Serfdom". And taking a look at non-conservative voices at the fringes of what's usually called 'populism' like Ben Cobley, David Goodhart and Matthew Goodwin.

The questions - challenges we could call them - that emerge include:

1. How do we restore trust to society - in things like marriage, education, justice, business and finance as well as government?

2. How, in an age of individualism, LGBT rights, gay marriage and identity wars, do we rebuild families as the central building block of society?

3. How do we balance the undoubted power of free markets and new technology in promoting betterment with the human desire to sustain community?

4. How do we promote local autonomy in a world filled with outcries about 'postcode lotteries'?

5. How does personal responsibility square with the popular idea that our agency is compromised by modern marketing methods?

6. Is there still a concept of duty - to family, friends, neighbourhood and nation?

7. Can we meet the aspiration for security without compromising civil liberties, and where is the boundary beyond which acceptable social control become autocracy?

8. What are the institutions we need to meet the aspirations for secure families and strong communities?

Too much of our thinking is, as Lizz Truss noted, dominated by opinion polling and focus groups resulting in policy-making that, to use an ad man's term, "just films the brief" - we get lists of initiatives each crafted so as to ping a positive in polling or research but these lists are, taken as a whole, unsatisfying. From tweaks, up or down, to taxes through grants or incentives to tinkering bits of regulatory change, what we have doesn't present any sort of picture of what we want tomorrow's families, communities and neighbourhoods to look like - they are bereft of a vision and wholly without the sort of mission Disraeli set us, 'improve the condition of the working man'.

You don't need university departments, think tanks or learned societies to consider what a 21st century conservatism might look like and there's no point in (given the left wing bias of academia) trying to push water uphill - so feel free to take those eight questions above, add to them if you like, and start thinking about what kind of place you want to live in and how we get there.


Monday, 13 May 2019

NIMBYs gonna NIMBY (and why the planning reform we need will be so hard)

To understand why (however much doing so is the right thing) it'll be tricky getting major reform of planning policies to allow better land supply and ultimately more affordable housing, here's the new leader of Uttlesford Council (Uttlesford is the bit of Essex round Saffron Walden) explaining his plans:
R4U will also revisit where the new towns will go and how many new homes are needed. After Brexit he says an economic downturn may mean fewer people moving here.
While the Great Brexit Train Crash is largely to blame for Conservative collapse here, it's worth noting that this new leader points at a growth-oriented local plan as the thing that matters. Along with his pals, John Lodge wants to re-apply the tourniquet to the local area - limiting new housing and stifling the potential economic growth that should accompany the expansion to Stanstead Airport.

Across the south of England groups got elected committed to preventing new housing, limiting growth and riding the narrow self-interest of existing home-owners. These groups have a variety of names - most commonly (name of place) Residents or (name of place) Independents but sometimes just plain old-fashion Liberal Democrats - but the unifying feature to them all is that 'residents voice' always means 'not in my back yard', these are NIMBY parties and they're going to NIMBY good and hard.

The current local plan process isn't fit for purpose - it takes an age to produce, is compromised by endless central government tinkering, and produces a system that doesn't meet housing need while, at the same time, promoting NIMBY attitudes. It's not just Green Belts (only 6% of Uttlesford is in the Green Belt) but the view that, as Cllr. Lodge puts it, "we will decide..." when outside Green Belt, UK law tells us that there's a presumption in favour of development and it rests with the planning authority to give reasons for any refusal that are compliant with local plans and national guidance.

Up here in Bradford, we are now in our 12th year of preparing our local plan - we've agreed a core strategy but, as a result of the latest bit of central government tinkering, we're in the process of reviewing the central part of that strategy - how many houses we need. The number right now is 43,500 and, under the (not yet introduced but, you know, we'll use it won't we) standardised method, this might drop a little. And, at some point in the next two years, we might get around to considering the actual land allocations to build those houses, a process that will take at least two years.

The whole strategic planning system is a joke but it will stay so long as it can be used to secure anti-growth, anti-housing policies at a local level. And we'll continue to see the likes of Cllr. Lodge elected with a mission to deliver NIMBY policies - mostly by booting the growth into long grass labelled 'infrastructure'.


Saturday, 11 May 2019

Why the Green Belt needs reform in one image...

This building is owned by Bradford Council. It is in the Green Belt. It is a ruin. Bradford refused permission to develop it or restore it. It sums up why that policy - and the attitude of planners - needs urgent reform:

At a time of housing supply crises, this should not happen.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Communism is evil - how come its apologists get so much time, attention and space to promote this murderous, coercive faith?

"The second memorial lecture was given in January by the American political theorist Jodi Dean, who is keen to rescue the word 'communist' from its negative - and, she insists, historically inaccurate - associations..."
This is the world we're in - this quotation doesn't come from some obscure spartist website or even from communism's house journal, The Morning Star, but from the London Review of Books. From the lead article in the latest issue of this august journal.

Imagine just for a minute that the LRB's main article was from an avowed fascist arguing that Gentile's actualism and the policies of 1920s Italy were powerful, change-making forces for good and that Fascism is misunderstood and perceived negatively. No, you can't imagine it because you know it would never happen - the repainting of Fascism in bright 21st century colours is simply not something we could countenance. Not so with communism.

Time and time again - on the TV, in magazines, in film and in theatre - the evils of communism are given a different set of teeth, a new smile, a smart set of modern clothes. The millions of dead bodies on which today's communism perches get brushed aside as a detail, explained away as some sort of tragic error or, worst, seen as a necessary collateral in the pursuit of the New Man and true communism.

I understand how people who've arrived at a left-wing - even socialist - perspective might be troubled by the discovery that people who proclaimed the same faith were responsible for genocide, rape, murder, incarceration, torture and oppression. Aren't these the sins of the 'right' - the things the left opposes? So we get revisionism - I remember a bizarre seminar at university where we discussed the bewildering manner in which the number of dead bodies in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge was parsed according to the ideological position of the calculator. My lecturer took the Noam Chomsky position - there weren't as many dead as claimed and, anyway, it was down to individual actions by bad soldiers and Pol Pot didn't know about what was going on (I paraphrase but this summarises the then academically popular apologia for one of the worst genocides of the 20th century). Portraying this - the consequence of communism in power - as somehow an historical aberration, not real communism, is precisely what Jodi Dean and her fellow travellers want to do. Just so they can carry on promoting a faith that demands coercion and oppression as well as producing, in so many tragic cases, violence, death and starvation.

Communism should not be savable through some sort of historical revisionism, it should be confined to the same place as Nazism and Fascism and its proponents treated with the same opprobrium. So long as elite journals like the LRB can lead with unchallenged communist apologia, we are a long way from seeing the murderous ideas of communism properly confined to the madder corners of obscure websites and batty college pamphleteers.


Thursday, 9 May 2019

If you say you believe in One Nation, aren't you a nationalist?

‘Conservativism should be broad, not narrow; open, not closed; forward-looking, not yearning for a mythical past. .... We should seek to unite, not divide. In short, One Nation Conservatism.’
So says David Gauke MP in an address to Onward, the latest pet think tank for Tory MPs (Onward does sound like the motto of a not very good prep school though). My botheration with this is that it manages to be, in one short sentence, patronising, self-contradictory and divisive. So much for 'one nation'.

That a successful political party in the UK has to be a 'broad church' is not a new idea or, indeed, one that is anything other than common sense given our 'first-past-the-post' voting system. But this game of setting a series of words in juxtaposition as a way to say that 'populism' or 'nationalism' isn't part of that broad church represents a break with the idea of a broad church. I might not be one of them but there are plenty of people in the Conservative Party, and even more among the voters, whose politics do reflect the idea of nationhood, queen and country, Rule Britannia. What Gauke says to these people - having said we're a broad church - is that we don't want any of that unswerving patriotism in our party, we're forward-looking, progressive, modern and slightly uncomfortable with all that nation stuff.

This is the problem with today's one nation tories - bear in mind that the original One Nation group in the party back in the 1950s included Ted Heath, Ian McLeod Powell. Now, One Nation Conservatives, even outwith the Brexit thing, represent establishment machine politics rather than, as was the case in the 1950s, an endeavour to grasp the essence of Disraeli's party by forging together social concern, robust finances and an open economy. Worse, advocates of this new One Nation like David Gauke have taken to positioning it as merely oppositional - not Thatcherite free markets, not populist, not reactionary, not traditionalist.

Conservatism may be a broad church and, indeed, a very flexible ideology but it has boundaries (or, at least, I thought it had boundaries). At the heart of conservatism, however, is the idea that our relationship with place matters more than merely maximising utility. And if you're going to call it One Nation then, unless the term is meaningless, it is absolutely a statement of nationalism. Yes you can modify this by saying 'civic nationalism' but it's still an idea founded on the importance of the place we call our nation.

Conservatism also seeks (the clue's in the name) to conserve and preserve, to recognise that while things change we should do it carefully and slowly so as to avoid losing the baby with the bath water. When David Gauke speaks of 'yearning for a mythical past' he's summoning up the idea, popular with the intellectual left, that 'populism' harks back to some golden era - how often have you heard or read some sneering representative of the intelligensia dismissing Brexit voters as wanting a return to Empire or some similar huffle. Yet that 'mythical past' is not what people hark back to, except in the understanding that people love the idea of a world with secure employment, stable families, strong communities, low crime rates and trusted institutions. And if a little less utility maximisation and a bit less globalisation is the price of getting closer to that mythical ideal then maybe populism isn't all that bad.

Disraeli wrote of 'two nations' - in simple terms, rich and poor. And he set the Conservative Party, in opposition to the Liberals, as the party with a mission of forging one nation again. In doing this, however, Conservatives recognise that the answer is not revolution or radicalism - you don't get one nation by tearing down the world of the rich and powerful but by allowing the poor to become part of that world. If you want to criticise the populism of Trump, you do so by pointing out - as the Conservatives came to accept after a great deal of pain - that protectionism is far worse for the poor than it is for the rich. You need to accept that moving people from poverty to comfort requires that the rich and powerful give something back and that the best way to do this is by them being part of the same community - sharing the same place and space.

Right now the David Gauke position - because it defines itself negatively - is losing the argument with what he calls 'populists'. It's no good standing there telling people you know better (you might of course, but they have to know that to believe you and right now they don't) when there are people prepared, sometimes cynically, to say to people 'I know you're angry, I'm angry too, let's go and knock some heads together'. The sort of thinking coming out from the rash of new (all London-based of course) think tanks like Onward is narrow, technocratic and ideologically rootless - we're fixing the window locks and installing alarms when the real problem is that the door's wide open. Lots of feel-good policy initiatives that friends in the media will love but no substantial thinking about what we want our world - or rather the hundreds of little worlds in which people actually live - to be like.

If your political idea is One Nation - united, strong - then you are a nationalist. Is David Gauke?

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Folk memory and voting behaviour - why protest votes aren't all you might think

My Dad lived for the last part of his life on the Isle of Sheppey, so I always take a look at elections results there. Here's the result for the ward he lived in from last week:

There were three contested seats in Sheppey Central ward.
  • Elliott Matthew Jayes, Swale Independents, 1019 votes
  • Peter John MacDonald, Conservative, 488 votes
  • Pete Neal, Conservative, 461 votes
  • Trudi Louise Nicholls, Conservative, 325 votes
  • Chris Shipley, Green Party, 383 votes
  • Paul David Steele, Labour, 339 votes
  • Mad Mike Young, The Official Monster Raving Loony Party, 330 votes
Elliot Matthew Jayes, Swale Independents, Peter John MacDonald, Conservative, and Pete Neal, Conservative were elected to Sheppey Central.

One suspects that, had the Swale Independents stood a full slate of candidates they'd have won all three seats (and a surprisingly good performance from Official MRLP - Sheppey is a hotbed of political luncacy). On the face of it, given the seat was held by the Conservatives, this was a shock result - matched by ten other independent gains across Swale. But maybe not - here's the 2007 result:

And in 2008, Independents won a further seven seats on Swale District Council. In this part of the world, there's a tradition of the alternative to a conservative being a local independent - my Dad was wont to say that, just maybe, we should have more independent councillors.

We saw last Thursday the same effect across North Yorkshire where the most popular chosen vehicle to kick Conservatives with was a vote for Independents. Elsewhere in the country the popular choice was voting Liberal Democrat but, again, the local folk memory determined where this would happen - almost always where the Lib Dems have, at some point, controlled or been in leadership on the local council. Here are some of that party's big wins this year:

Winchester (Lib Dem control 1995-2004 & 2010-2011)
North Norfolk (Lib Dem control 2003-2011)
Bath & NE Somerset (Lib Dem minority leadership 1995-2011)
Hinckley & Bosworth (Lib Dem control 2007-2015)
North Devon (Lib Dem control 1991-2007)
Chelmsford (Lib Dem control 1988-1991, 1995-1999)
Vale of White Horse (Lib Dem control 1995-2011)
Mole Valley (Lib Dem control 1994-1995)

Nearly everywhere we look the local folk memory would have predicted whether Independents or Liberal Democrats would be the choice of disgruntled voters. Elsewhere the results seem a lot more stable (they probably aren't) with it being harder to gauge who gets the protest - in remain voting areas without a folk memory of Lib Dem or Independent voting the protest is as likely to go to the Greens whereas in more leave inclined areas it's UKIP or similar (in places like Bradford South there's a less savoury folk memory in voting - the BNP).

So the great Liberal Democrat performance in many regards reflects a recovery from what might be called the 'Clegg Collapse' of 2011 when the party lost 690 seats. There are some results from last Thursday - Cotswold, for example - where the Lib Dems are building new strength (in very strong remain voting areas as a rule) but mostly we've seen the public's desire to punish the Conservatives without voting Labour reflected in wins dependent on the folk memory of past strength. In a weird old way, it's a reminder that we're all pretty conservative in our voting behaviour!


Monday, 6 May 2019

Bus services need less regulation and more subsidy not council committees deciding routes.

Geography matters when you're thinking of running a bus service. I know this sounds pretty obvious but it does seem to be a little lost on the London-based political commentariat who rather assume that getting a bus in, say, Appleby-in-Westmoreland is going to be the same as getting a bus at Oxford Circus.

The geography problem is that Appleby is 34 miles from its nearest large town, Carlisle - by comparison 34 miles from Oxford Circus gets you to Sevenoaks in Kent. Nobody is going to run a bus service as frequent as you'd expect in London on these long rural routes. And, because not that many people want to go from Appleby to Carlisle, the passenger numbers are lower.

London's area is just short of 2,000 square miles and holds a population over 8 million. The northernmost part of England (Cumbria, Nortumberland, Durham and Tyne & Wear) is over 6,000 square miles but has only 2.8 million people, nearly half of whom live in the five Tyne and Wear metropolitan districts. And across this area are thousands of little communities and thousands more isolated farmsteads - saying "we should have a system like London" is ridiculous.

Bus usage has been declining (less quickly in London but it has fallen even there) but the density of London means that there are far more profitable routes available to, as the advocates of state-directed regulated bus systems say, cross-subsidise the unprofitable but socially-desirable routes. I'm not defending the current semi-regulated situation, it's the worst of both worlds in many ways with (as the Competition Commission in 2011 concluded) too many barriers to entry, too little competition and too much of a cosy relationship between Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) and the bus operators. But the answer - in as far as there is a way to design an effective bus service for dispersed populations across large rural areas - lies in less regulation not more along with a transport subsidy system focused more on supporting social necessity rather than subsidising commuter travel.

There are a lot of bus users (far more than trains):

Nearly four-and-a-half billion journeys but look more closely and not only are half those journeys in London but if you take those passenger journeys on a per mile basis, London get 7.5 passenger journeys per mile travelled compared to just 2 for rural England.

Simply saying, as the bus regulation fans say, that re-regulation or nationalisation will change everything is to deny the reality of geography - the nature of England's population distribution means you can't create a system for most of it where everyone is five minutes from a bus stop with a regular service. We need to think differently and, rather than simply hand over new powers to committees of local councillors or new-fangled elected mayors, we should combine subsidy with further deregulation.

Why not allow more people - whether private businesses, community groups, or councils - to set up services. Take a look at PickMeUp in Oxford (admittedly an urban area) - with 22,000 people registered for the app:
PickMeUp, managed by the Oxford Bus Company on behalf of Go-Ahead Group, is the largest scheme of its kind to be launched by a UK bus company. It enables passengers to request a mini-bus pick-up within 15 minutes at a virtual bus stop using a mobile phone app. The service provides the flexibility to choose both the start and end point of journeys within the Eastern Arc of the city. Technology enables passengers to be matched with others making similar journeys to enable ride sharing.
Or consider innovations like San Francisco's 'Google Bus' or New Jersey's jitneys as well as asking whether the app-based ridesharing model used by Lyft and Uber is a model relevant to public transport systems in dispersed populations. We could also deliver the subsidy via the app using postcodes to ensure that it's used to resolve the social issues connected to isolation. And lastly there's the prospect of driverless technology - even drone buses - making it more economic to serve those isolated communities.

It isn't a scandal that bus fares are higher outside London, nor is it a consequence of deregulation or privatisation. It's the result of subsidy being withdrawn (or rather shifted from buying routes to providing bus passes) and this has meant that only the profitable town-to-town routes remain. Bus companies, in competition with urban rail and light rail systems, are putting in wi-fi, reclining seats and air-conditioning while reducing the overall system coverage. A wise government would open up the market to new innovations and initiatives but to make this possible we would need a significant increase in public subsidy. One option here might be to shift subsidy away from intercity trains (the London commuter - Southern Rail etc. - trains are largely unsubsidised) that are mostly used by the relatively well off and move it to supporting bus services that largely serve poorer populations.

It is welcome that we're talking about bus services in England but if the start and finish of the discussion is to simply go back to expensive, inefficient, pre-1985 services then we are doing the millions of people who use buses a massive disservice. The opportunity to combine public subsidy with market innovation would be missed and we'd end up with services determined by political whim and prices that don't reflect demand or need. Above all, if we try to apply a system that works well for a concentrated population of millions to a dispersed population of thousands, we'll end up with a complete mess.